In part two of The Continental Drifters' memories of their new two-disc compilation, they talk about how the personal and musical merged when they played covers.
Today, Drifted: In the Beginning & Beyond documents The Continental Drifters’ early years in Los Angeles and the band's love of cover songs. Once a version of the band moved to New Orleans in 1993, their shows regularly included musical guests, and accommodating them required the band to learn to play other people’s songs. As bassist Mark Walton says, that wasn’t his forte, but it became one of the band’s hallmarks.
Yesterday, members of The Continental Drifters reflected on the band’s start and the importance of such original songs “The Mississippi” and “Dallas” to its development. Today, they talk about the way their personal, social and musical lives came together when they played others’ songs.
I have never taken a music lesson (self-taught with lots of bad habits), so what comes naturally is what I do. Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a musician, and because "It's Only Rock and Roll" I believed wanting it was all that was needed. So ignorantly, that's just what I did. I got a guitar, then a bass, played in bands with school friends, made up songs, and became a musician.
I never had the bug to play cover songs as some my friends and colleagues did, and if I did, I wanted to put my own stamp on them. First, because I was lazy, and second, because I thought there was a stigma associated to playing covers. Then, there are those who feel if you don't play the song as it was originally arranged, it’s sacrilegious and you suck if you don't play it "correctly.”
When I had to play a cover, I was intimidated and honestly, it's because I didn't really know what the hell I was doing. That's why I preferred playing original songs. I couldn't screw them up!
The Continental Drifters were usually drinking mass amounts of alcohol and not very critical of each others’ playing. On many occasions they would start playing a cover live in front of an audience, and everyone would fall in. I didn't have a choice; it was sink or swim. What you played naturally that first time was usually the parts you ended up staying with. That made it so much more interesting to me than to learn someone else's parts. For me and the way that I play, the bass has a way of finding its own space in a song, and when I do what I do, it usually worked pretty good.
Through my tenure in the Continental Drifters, I learned to love playing covers—any and all covers. Funny how life changes and perspectives blur. I thank those in the band that had the passion to introduce to me the multitudes of well-known and obscure covers from the country, R&B, folk, soul, rock ’n’ roll, and British folk-rock songbooks, and helping me beyond my awkward years to find my own love and passion for playing the cover song.
“Dedicated to the One I Love” - Part of the history of the band is our living room rehearsals which began in a house on a Hollywood hillside where Carlo and Mark lived. We referred to it as the “bach pad” (pronounced 'batch'). The room had a bunch of old furniture, including a coffee table that was stuffed with Camel Cash. Did those ever get redeemed for a body bag? No one knows. There was also a weird original piece of pop art on the wall, a plastic silver double row of bubbles that glimmered in the sunlight through the front window. The guys did their best to keep it clean, being the fastidious people they were and are.
Most of the rehearsals in that room were fueled by a steady stream of Miller Genuine Draft beer. More often than not, there was food being prepared and eaten by the hungry musicians in attendance. The band's signature conviviality was born there and perfected on the stage at Raji's, a club in the basement of Hastings Hotel building, 6162 Hollywood Blvd. which did not survive the 1994 Northridge earthquake and was turned into a parking lot shortly thereafter.
Because of the vocal firepower in the band, especially with the addition of Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson to its ranks, we sought a few songs that would be a good showcase of the harmonies. One tune that came up for consideration was The Mamas and the Papas' rendition of the "5" Royales' classic "Dedicated to the One I Love." We all loved how John, Michelle, Denny and Cass weaved through the arrangement with subtle dexterity and power. We decided we could do that version, but we didn't actually have a copy of the recording from which to learn the parts.
Susan had an idea, though. She got on the phone to call famous L.A. deejay Jim Ladd whom she had known from her many years of being part of the Los Angeles rock scene. We turned on the stereo and tuned in to his show, where he introduced the next tune with a mixture of bemusement and resignation.
"I used to think of this sort of stuff as bubblegummy and not very progressive, but it took a phone call from an old friend to help me realize what a great record this is." Or something along those lines. Then he played "Dedicated" and we cribbed our parts and sang it together for the first time in luxurious harmony. It became a mainstay of the Continental Drifters' setlist for years to come.
My most impressionable song from my early Drifter days is “Can't Make It Alone” from Dusty In Memphis. I was staying up at the "bach pad" on and off as I worked at a restaurant close by and some days/nights it was easier to just go stay with the guys ( Mark, Carlo and Gary). I was going through some rough transitional times around then, and the guys were like my angels. I really needed some, on so many levels.
Sunday mornings, or any other morning really—well actually all mornings at the bach pad—I would find Mark Walton making me an espresso after putting on some Dusty and the house slowly waking up. Mark used to say, “I’d really like to hear your sing this song, ‘Can't Make it Alone’.” And I was like, “I don't know if I wanna take on Dusty.”
The Drifters were all about encouragement for me to try new things. Writing, playing guitar and stretching my wings as a vocalists. I never would have thought I was cool enough to do a Dusty song. Why fucking bother? She already did it. I always say that being in the Continental Drifters was like going to music camp. The guys and Vicki were such great teachers, and I was a hungry student.
Anyway, I agreed to try it one rehearsal night and the rest is history. That song tore me up, and on some nights, I gave it right back.
[Note: “Can’t Make it Alone” isn’t on Drifted, but it is on the self-titled album released in 2001.]
“Farmers Daughter” - This is one of the many songs that the band might spontaneously break into during a night. I remember the first time for many such songs where I would have no clue as to what we were doing, but would be joyously playing along because we were always All For One and One for All. But jeez—Farmers Daughter always, always, always gave me goosebumps as soon as the girls came in with the vocals. What a ride! Not one of those glorious emotional Drifter journies like “At the End of the Day,” but one of the more straight ahead rides that would just put a great big smile on my face while the song seemed to play me.
As I write that, I think that the song playing me was the norm when playing with that particular group of people. I look forward to hearing how the songs will play the grand arsenal of Continental Drifter players [at Tipitina’s September 12). It will be a journey, no doubt.
For the Listen Listen session, it was about 10 a.m. at a tiny radio station in Germany. We had blown it out at a gig the night before, more hangovers than not. They wanted us to do Drifters songs, but we were “Ummm, I don't think we can do that. How about we do all Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson just for fun.”
No room for electric instruments. The kick drum was a tom tom case on a guitar stand. Songs learned and arranged on the spot, and somebody pushes the record button.
While we're playing a song, I don't think any of us play it with a mind that it's going to be presented to the public. We just play for the moment, and this session captures that essence. As a whole, I think it's one of the most musical sessions we've ever done.
I can’t really think of one song that sticks out. What I do remember is the thrill of hearing my songs fleshed out by musicians who got it. There were never any instances of me telling anyone what to play. It just happened. No click tracks. Most tracks recorded at once. Minimal overdubbing. We just went in and blew doors.